I grew up in a musical family. And by “musical” I don’t mean that any of us in the Sackheim household was blessed with the gift of song. I, for example, took piano lessons for eight years, but never progressed beyond a fourth-grade level. Likewise, I remember sitting through my sisters’ choir concerts when, to tell you the truth, I don’t think of my sisters as people who can sing. I cannot sing either. Nor can our parents. My husband, who has an excellent voice, dramatically winces when he hears our rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
Yet for all we Sackheims lacked in the ability to produce music, we more than made up for in our desire to consume it. We were (and still are) musical fanatics—Broadway musical fanatics to be exact. Many of my happiest childhood memories feature excursions to see Broadway shows.
Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, my family had access to excellent productions in the city. And since my mom’s family lived in Rochester, New York, my parents often attached two days in New York City on to our annual grandparent visit. Sometimes we saw three shows in one trip. I was spoiled one could argue. But not spoiled rotten. Because rotten is so negative, and those shows were good times. Those shows were joy.
The Broadway experience in our family was also educational. My parents made us read about the musicals weeks before a show and listen to the music since it’s hard to truly capture the nuances of what’s happening when you’re hearing the lyrics for the first time live.
We learned about plot, character, and sometimes even history and faith. Before seeing Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat (with Donny Osmond!) we reread the chapters in Genesis concerning Jacob and his sons and Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt. We learned about the French revolution for Les Miserables and about Vietnam before seeing Lea Salonga and Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon. The list goes on and on. (Lucky girl, like I said.)
When I was fourteen, my mom forced me to read The Secret Garden before she would take me to see the Tony-nominated version (with Mandy Patinkin!) in New York. I grumbled about having to put down whichever VC Andrews novel I’d been devouring at the time. “Classics are boring,” I insisted. As it happens, The Secret Garden became one of my favorite books, and I still listen to that 1991 musical version now.
I didn’t waste any time passing my Broadway love onto a new generation. My kids might bear the surname Badzin, but I’ve made sure they approach Broadway shows like a Sackheim.
We started with Annie, a gateway musical. I focused on the little girl, the loyal dog, the iconic red dress, and the upbeat “sun will come out tomorrow” message. They absolutely loved it.
Next I tried The Sound of Music. They quickly memorized the words to “My Favorite Things,” or as they still call the song, “Raindrops on Roses.” The Nazi plot points proved harder to simplify for young kids. And I can’t remember how I explained the stalker issues in The Phantom of the Opera, nor can I imagine what possessed me to introduce that particular show to three kids ages six and under. (I started this Broadway indoctrination long before we had four children.)
Nowadays the kids tell me when they’ve had enough of one show and want to hear something new. I try to be careful with the order so that I’m not exposing them to flashy numbers before they’ve had a chance to appreciate the older soundtracks. I made a mistake playing Wicked for them before we’d tried Fiddler on the Roof. Suffering discrimination for being green my kids could imagine. But for being Jewish? Bless my proud and naive, Jewish kids’ hearts, they found that particular plot point unrealistic.
We started The Secret Garden last month. I held my breath as they listened to the first act. The won’t like it, I thought. The show starts in India then quickly moves to England. The music, like the story, is dark. The characters cry often; ghosts (who actually sing in the show) appear as part of Uncle Archibald’s imagination and sometimes in flashbacks, which is hard to describe to kids listening in the car on the way to school. That became a lesson for them, too.
I’m happy to report that the kids loved The Secret Garden, but now we’re back to Wicked on car rides because Bryan and I are taking our oldest three to see it in Minneapolis this week. Sam and Rebecca, now nine and almost seven, saw Joseph and The Lion King downtown with my in-laws (for which I’m very grateful), but I’ve never had the chance to take them to a live performance myself. It’s quite an investment to bring a whole family to a Broadway production, which certainly gives me a new appreciation for the way my parents included my sisters and me in their love of theater.
Something I hope my parents appreciate is the one unexpected return on their investment: Their grandchildren not only know every word of these shows, but their grandchildren can also sing those words in pleasant voices and on tune. It’s the happy ending of this Broadway fanatic’s dreams.
Illustration by Christine Juneau
Read more of Nina’s work in This is Childhood, a book about the first years of childhood and motherhood.